City pioneers

David Kroyanker's newest book highlights Jerusalem's urban pioneers.

building 88 (photo credit: )
building 88
(photo credit: )
David Kroyanker, architect, planner and prolific author who has documented Jerusalem's architectural history, has recently released his newest book, Architecture of the State in the Making (published by Keter, 2006). By highlighting the work of Eliezer Yellin and Wilhelm Hecker, whose partnership of 25 years is part of what Kroyanker terms the Zionist urban architecture during the Mandatory period in Eretz-Yisrael, he shows how the architects and the settlers in "distant" areas such as Rehavia and Talpiot translated the abstract concepts of Zionism into concrete pioneering. "The story of Zionism is not only the story of the pioneers in the Galilee and the first kibbutzim. It is no less the story of the cosmopolitan-Israeli culture of the urban pioneers. I am not ashamed to to even use what might be seen as a cliche: these are the pioneers who helped to fulfill the Zionist dream," Kroyanker told an overflow audience at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute last week, in an evening dedicated to this newest publication. The handsome volume contains numerous illustrations - personal photos, buildings (then and now) and design plans. As in all his books, Kroyanker skillfully researched not only architecture and planning, but also culture, social issues, economics, ethnography and personal stories, and synthesizes the information in a flowing, readable style. Eliezer Yellin (1888-1945) was the son of a distinguished Jerusalem family. His great-grandfather came to the city in 1834, and his grandfather, Yehoshua, was one of the seven founders of Nahalat Shiva, the first significant Jewish quarter outside the Old City walls. His father, David, a prominent educator, established the Hebrew Teachers Seminary in Beit Hakerem. Eliezer married into a well-known English Zionist family. His wife, Telma Bentwich-Yellin, was a gifted cellist and their home in Rehavia, designed by Eliezer and still standing intact, became the hub of cultural and social events that brought together Jews and non-Jews at a time of cosmopolitan openness in this town. About Wilhelm Hecker less is known, Kroyanker noted. Yellin and Hecker met as students at the technical high school in Darmstadt, Germany. When Hecker came to Turkish-ruled Palestine, both joined the Turkish army in World War I as engineering officers. They got their start in designing bridges and roads and continued this involvement in civil engineering projects throughout their careers. In those years, Kroyanker relates, architecture and engineering tasks were intertwined. The book portrays the work of Yellin and Hecker in the broader context of Jewish design during Zionism's formative years. It transformed the country's physical layout, from the Ottoman era to the establishment of Israel. Architects strived to shape an identity through design. Alexander Baerwald, trained on the European neo-classicist style, sought to incorporate Oriental motives such as domes, vaults and arches, symbolic of the return to the ancient homeland in the East. His best known work is the old Technion in Haifa. Yellin followed this pattern and his designs feature his trademark graceful arches. They can still be seen in his own home and the one he laid out for Gad Frumkin, a judge on the Mandatory High Court, both on Rehov Ramban in Rehavia and mercifully spared from destruction or disfiguring expansion. The Beit Hakerem Seminar, now College, also retains this original core. Over time, Yellin yielded to the more prevalent International Style in 20th-century architecture, inspired by the Bauhaus School of Design. Kroyanker maintains that the Zionist leadership preferred this straightforward and strictly functional approach. It thus won over the Eclectic style, which sought to integrate components of East and West. Yellin and Hecker came up fifth in an architectural competition for the Jewish Agency compound built on Rehov King George. A young architect named Yochanan Ratner, adhering to Bauhaus simplicity, won. The domed monumental structure envisioned by Yellin remained on paper, as did a surprising number of buildings which were never built during the firm's years of activity. In the absence of relevant documentation, the reason for this, Kroyanker says, "remains a mystery." These designs (including, for example, a central synagogue for Tel Aviv) reflect an expansive vision with a dome on top. Still, the Jerusalem firm was very much a part of the Zionist endeavor of building the land. Today, many are familiar with the water tower in Herzliya just off the highway. In the past it served as an icon of the Yishuv, the growing Jewish community. This is a Yellin-Hecker design, pioneering the use of reinforced concrete in the country. The firm had an ongoing relationship with Richard Kaufmann, development planner for the Zionist Executive who set out to build Herzliya as an agricultural community. "We'll do the work for you," they told Kaufmann. Practically none of the small farm houses they designed remains today. Apartment blocks have taken their place. Two larger, run-down buildings in Tel Aviv built by the firm (Rehov Ben-Yehuda) still stand. Apparently, quality restoration will take place there. Tel Aviv has a record of turning such buildings around. A moving description in the book is devoted to Beit Daniel in Zichron Yaacov, a musical and recreation home which attracted famous musicians. This peaceful compound was designed by Yellin for certain members of Telma's family. The author hopes that restoration will preserve this unique corner in Zichron. But while the book attends to architecture and social history outside Jerusalem, it is to the capital and its bourgeois settlers that Kroyanker devotes most of his attention and passion. At his public presentation, Kroyanker screened historic pictures of the empty, rock-filled fields where now-busy thoroughfares such as Ramban and Ibn Gvirol now pass. "Building Rehavia, and settling there, was an act of Zionist heroism," Kroyanker declared. The settlers emphasized the importance of "Hebrew Labor" and most of the construction work was performed by members of the "Gdud Havoda" work groups. When homeowners dared to use Arab laborers, they often returned in the morninings to find graffiti painted across their walls, together with a thick layer of black asphalt. The Frumkin house, known as "Beit Havazelet," currently undergoing restoration, will hopefully return to its original beauty. A couple of houses down Ramban Street, the home of Arthur Ruppin is no longer recognizable. Ruppin, a dominant player in building the Yishuv, asked Yellin to design his home. In his diary Ruppin wrote in 1925, "Our new home is a source of great joy. The view from the balcony, the scene of virgin land...Walking on the roof at dusk, flowers blossoming in the garden…The whole neighborhood (Rehavia) looks so endearing." Indeed, Yellin himself, together with his wife Telma, were "pioneers of social life" in Rehavia, an urbane mixture of culture, professional commitment, Zionist zeal and at the same time an awareness of other circles in the city. Yellin had command of several languages, including Arabic. Well-known Rehavia residents at the time believed in dialogue. Yellin died at a relatively young 57 years of age. In 1936, his firm came upon hard times and the couple sold their home. But his partnership with Hecker endured, probably reflecting Yellin's upright and pleasant personality, reflected in the book. Kroyanker reveals it was Shoshana Yisraeli, eldest daughter of Eliezer and Telma Yellin, who urged him to explore the Yellin-Hecker legacy. Yisraeli died in 2004. Kroyanker also suggests that this comprehensive survey could show the way for a treatment of more Jewish architects in Jerusalem active during the Mandate period, including Fritz Korenberg, Max Loeb, Benjamin Chaikin and others.